Ever since I discovered Lawrence Durrell, a poet, traveller and author intoxicated with the exploits of the 'Mediterranean Woman through the ages' I have been intricately hooked on the enigmatic qualities of this mysterious creature.
In his Alexandra Quartet, written in the mid-1950s, Durrell presents an impressive study which explores the erotic lives of exotic characters in cosmopolitan Alexandria in the post-war years. Once again the Mediterranean woman was the central theme of this literary portrait of a decaying city.
This book was published a few years after I had witnessed the forbidden fruit of this maritime city, 'the wine-press of love', having spent there a whole month after my participation in the first Mediterranean Games of 1951.
Alexandria left on me a lasting impression as well as a commitment todelve deeper into the historic specimens of Mediterranean womanhood, embodied incharacters like Cleopatra, Thaïs, Helen of Troy, Lucrezia Borgia and many others. Indeed it was a pleasure to have travelled in the mind with Durrell and to have shared the excitement in the discovery, whether fictional or real, of the Woman of the Mediterranean.
But was Malta, the iconic island of antiquity, the promoter of this glorious tradition? Was the cult of the Mother Goddess, so prevalent in our temples, part of the reverence attached to the female creature throughout the Mediterranean? If many of the early settlers in Malta came from the Near East, abode of the most revered females of antiquity, then surely the exalted place of our temples dedicated to the Goddess of Fertility is an important link in this tradition.
The proliferation of so many significant neolithic structures built over 5,000 years ago on a barren, wind-swept archipelago, suggests that Malta must have been a sacred location, a place of pilgrimage, a prehistoric Compostela or Lourdes, when Malta was an indispensable landfall for seafarers from the Near East before they ventured to the treacherous and uncharted seas beyond the Mediterranean. Here they would seek the divine protection of the gods invoking the oracle for safety.
The enormous decorative edifices must have been places of worship, but if they were temples what gods were worshipped here? It is no exaggeration to say that renowned archaeologists believe that in these purpose-built religious temples and their cult objects, we are witnessing one of the great steps in human evolution – the development of organised religion, where among the various deities of fertility the Mother Goddess reigned supreme. In an international encyclopedia of Mysterious Places – the life and legends of ancient sites around the world,the Tarxien Temples complex is ranked among such world-renowned sites as Delphi, Abu Simbel,Babylon and Tenochtitlan, the ancient Aztec capital. Of course we're here navigating in the misty and murky waters of prehistory where various theories abound; however nobody can deny the fact that this period is rife with mystique and glamour.
But who is this enigmatic Mother Goddess, the prototype Woman of the Mediterranean, that has occupied such an exalted place in our psyche throughout the ages? Undoubtedly, Malta was a strong promoter of female power and mystique as evidenced in the Tarxien Temples, where the colossal seven-foot figure reputed to be an obese Mother Goddess towered over all. The fertility symbolism is evident in all the temples either in the form of figurines like the Venus of Malta discovered at Ħaġar Qim, the artistic Sleeping Lady of Ħal Saflieni and the Embracing Couple, a small clay figurine found in Tarxien, as well as in the decorative art and architecture of the temples reputedly planned on the ‘fat lady’ statues.
Most of the obese female figures discovered are no paragons of beauty by today’s standards but perhaps they conformed to the idea that a corpulent body was a sign of well-being, a perception that lingeredon in Malta until half a century ago.
The association of our islands with the Goddess of Fertility and her offspring may have persisted with the Ancient Greeks. Was it a coincidence that the great Homer, the father of European literature, in his Odyssey (c. 800 BC) reputedly placed his most sensuous nymph Calypso in Maltese waters?
Homer relates how Ulysses drifted to the central Mediterranean until he reached Ogygia, the mythical island home of the goddess Calypso. Infatuated by this delectable and playful nymph, the hero of this epic story spent eight years on a romantic interlude before he returned home to Ithaca.Furthermore, the fact that the Egyptian historian Callimachus in the third century BC identified Gozo with Ogygia, the Homeric isle of Calypso, strengthens the theory that in the eastern Mediterranean echoes of Malta’s femininity cult lingered on.
Professor Anthony Bonanno, headof the Department of Classics and Archaeology at the University of Malta, also points out that this reference to Gozo survives in a fragment classified as incertaesedis, meaning it is not known to which Callimachus work it belonged. Perhaps, Callimachus, who was also a poet, based his conclusions more on Malta’s widespread reputation as the female cult centre of the Mediterranean than on any navigational treatise.
Throughout European literature the greatest romantic heroines have consistently emerged from our sea, the Sea of Destiny; in the time of Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe the heroines of these outstanding dramatists were mainly Mediterranean women with many of their qualities of love, passion and overpowering sensuality. Octogenarians of my generation brought up on a Shakespearean diet easily recall the quote from the Bard about Cleopatra of Egypt: “Age shall not wither her nor custom stale her infinite variety”. Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare and author of The Jew of Malta, vividly proclaims the beauty of Helen of Troy in Faustus in a passage considered as one of the grandest and most beautiful in all literature:
“Was this the face that launched a thousandships,
And burned the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
O, thou art fairer than the eveningair,
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars”
Famous composers have also been greatly impressed by the Mediterranean woman; Jules Massenet composed his exquisite opera Thaïs,which relates the story of an Egyptian courtesan who displayed her purity of heart and utter disdain for lust. The Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti of Luciadi Lammermoor fame, composed his Lucrezia Borgia,a femme fatale of the Renaissance period, projecting images of erotic corruption in female form laced with Machiavelian methods.
Other Mediterranean characters drift through my aging mind, women who all made their mark in history – Sappho, the Ancient Greek poetess; Laura,immortalised by Petrarch; Beatrice; Bouboulina of the Greek War of Independence; Semiramis and many others.
I agree with Durrell that we are all products of our landscape – what he calls the spirit of place.What distinguishes the Mediterranean Woman from all the other types is the fierce extremes in her character, the vehemence ofher feelings combined with a certain innocence and purity of mind.
“What characterises the Mediterranean woman,” argues Durrell, “is that she can do great things without once sacrificing the female side of her character”. He mentions Queen Elizabeth I of England and Catherine the Great ofRussia, both Nordic women who shed their femininity in order to become famous.Not soour dear specimens.
This feature does not claim to be, even remotely, ananthropological study of this rare species. It is more of a cri de coeur stemming from the theory that we are all products of our landscape. And since the whole Mediterranean is threatened and losing its character at an alarming rate, one is prompted to ask: will the typical Mediterranean Woman cease to exist?
This article originally appeared in the Sunday Times on April 11, 2010 - Reproduced with permission.